Captivating Drama — The Invisible Hand at American Stage
The Invisible Hand
Runs through June 25 at American Stage
Eighteenth century theorist Adam Smith coined the term “Invisible Hand” to illustrate the economy’s inherent ability to correct itself.
“The market is shaped by everyone’s self-interest, like an invisible hand moving it all along,” says Nick Bright in The Invisible Hand, currently in production at American Stage.
Smith couldn’t possibly have fathomed what financiers would endorse and enable in the name of free trade three centuries later, what we unknowingly have a hand in or who’s pulling the lever behind the curtain without our consent. Armed militias and oppressive regimes continue to be propped up to protect access to lucrative resources, leading to rebel insurgencies, which then lead to costly counter-offensives, then rogue attacks and a seemingly endless game of whack-a-mole.
And let’s not even get into the planet’s retribution by way of Climate Change.
Playwright and Pakistani-American actor Ayad Akhtar explores some of the unintended consequences of our free market in The Invisible Hand at American Stage. The tension-filled but illuminating allegory invites audiences to examine how greed is inextricably tied to the War on Terror, on all sides — from the embezzlement of bearded imams to the hypocrisies of heavily armed fundamentalists to the calloused oblivion of Western capitalists in designer suits.
The play’s plot centers on Bright (Joe Ditmyer), a Citibank employee who’s kidnapped by mistake in place of his supervisor, who has allegedly conspired with Pakistan’s minister of water to keep access to clean water from the people. With no real ideological beef with Bright, his captors Imam Saleem (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid) and Bashir (Benjamin T. Ismail) are almost ready to off him until he negotiates a deal to help the Imam and his posse profit from investments using his savings as seed money. An exchange between Bright and guard Dar (Shrey Neil) on how to profit from his cousin’s potato farm inspires the idea.
As you can imagine, the influx of cash brings to light certain hypocrisies and inequities. Blood is spilled, and the snake eats its own tail all over again.
Before you wince in fear of a heavy-handed political drama — like we don’t get enough of that on TV already — be assured that Akhtar’s wit and facility with dialogue, and his engaging characters, make peeling away at this ideological onion a mesmerizing and insightful experience.
In case you missed him, Akhtar hit the ground running this decade with his first play, the Tony-nominated comedy Disgraced, the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama that featured former Tampa guy/Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi among its leads. Since then he’s penned American Dervish and the Obie Award-winning The Invisible Hand, which makes its Florida debut at American Stage.
With AS Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte — the mastermind behind this season’s envelope-pushing play cycle, “In Search … of America” — back in the trenches, The Invisible Hand wins on all counts. It offers an exceptional cast, smart set design, and effective lighting and sound.
Detailed touches, from dingy mosaic tiles to the mock daylight shining through a barred window, make the seemingly low-frills production feel almost uncomfortably authentic. Credit goes to Chris Baldwin (lighting design), Jerid Fox (properties master and scenic artist) and Karla Hartley (sound design) for their scene setting. The costumes are particularly striking, too, thanks to Jill Castle.
As mentioned, the acting is right on: Witmyer conveys the visceral fear and abject helplessness of a political prisoner. Abdul-Rashid (who gave a memorable turn as Bynum in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) conveys a regal presence and flawed righteousness as Saleem, Ismail brings a truckload of swagger, a spot-on London accent and impressive dimension to Bashir, and Neil captures the gentle humility and eagerness of guard-servant Dar.
One criticism: The play comes to an abrupt resolution, making the audience question some of the hardships in the second act. Some of the most trying moments feel inorganic and tacked-on to enhance the plot. Of course, one could argue that hostage situations are confusing and unpredictable, which lends defense for Akhtar’s second act choices. Still, if he’s watched a Lifetime movie, he should know how unsatisfying those arduous captivity plots are with their one-minute endings.
Jokes aside, Akhtar offers a little more artistry than that. Before rushing the conclusion too much, he leaves us pondering an ongoing battle on the streets of Pakistan and drones in the distance as a poignant afterthought.
Akhtar also provides perspective on why unthinkable acts have been happening in greater frequency, calling into question the hard-line, short-term solutions of today and what they will incite in the future.
Young American Night is Thursday, June 8, with Happy Hour at 7 p.m.; show at 8 p.m. Patrons ages of 21-29 are invited to enjoy The Invisible Hand with BOGO Specialty Drinks. Chatbacks with the cast take place after performances on Thursday, June 8; Sunday, June 11; and Sunday, June 18. The Forum Spotlight On …The Invisible Hand explores the roots of Islamic terrorism and the role the American dollar plays in events that shape activities around the world on Monday, June 12, at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 ($7 for members). For more event info, visit americanstage.org.